Institutional kitchens have the leverage to significantly increase the purchase of sustainably grown food

Photo Credit: Jonathan Borba

A recent study in Journal Canadian Food Studies Special Issue: Food Procurement shows that large institution kitchens may be key players in reshaping the supply chain to get more sustainable food onto more plates. Food enters the supply chain in many ways whether it is sold directly to consumers or to wholesale buyers who then distribute it to manufacturers and retailers like restaurants, grocery stores, and institution cafeterias for K-12 schools, college campuses, and hospitals. Many farmers who use organic and other sustainable farming practices have small operations and face challenges when trying to sell their produce beyond their local communities or to large buyers. To reach more retailers like chain supermarkets and food manufacturers, these smaller farms need to get their produce to wholesale buyers that can distribute the food further, but issues of scale, rules about specific size requirements, and requirements for more liability insurance or federal inspections make it hard for small farmers to enter the wholesale marketplace. However, large institutions are shifting their goals to serve more sustainable and organic food, and have tremendous potential to make a large impact, when they can purchase that food.

This study suggests that while there are challenges, large kitchens can make small changes that would open the doors to smaller and more local farmers. For example, instead of requiring federal meat inspection for the farmers, they could allow equivalent, local inspections which would broaden the base of meat suppliers. Kitchens could rewrite their food service management contracts to set quotas for sustainable food purchasing. Kitchens could also make more meals from scratch to allow more freedom to change their menus seasonally and eliminate size requirements for produce, which would allow more access to smaller food suppliers and also combat food waste. The study concludes that while procuring food for large kitchens is complex, it provides a lot of potential to support sustainable farming.